It’s not unusual for a potential employer or client to ask an editing candidate to take a test as part of the hiring process. We can debate whether you should take an editing test or not, but once you agree to take the test, you’re agreeing to take it as administered.
When you take a test, it’s an unspoken agreement that you will be the only one completing the test. You’re expected to do the work yourself, according to the directions, with no help from others (unless the directions state otherwise).
As editors, we most often work alone on a text. We consult references and other editors for help, but we make the decisions and we do the work. Editors can, and do, work together to perform a single edit, but it’s clear from the outset how the edit will be completed.
Editing tests, of course, are not the same as real-world editing. So is it ethical to ask colleagues questions on a test you’re currently taking?
Editing tests are given to evaluate your skills as an editor, just as the tests you took in school were given to evaluate how well you learned specific lessons. They’re meant to be a demonstration of what you know and how you perform.
I work on both sides of the fence: as an editor and as a hiring agent. As an editor, I want to do my best to win the job or client. But as a hiring agent, I want to know the skills of the person I’m testing. I don’t expect the candidate to be perfect; no one is. (And if you’re taking an editing test that involves perfection in order to pass, it’s an unfair test. Skip it.)
Instead, I want to evaluate the skill level of the candidate. I’m looking for patterns of corrections rather than zero errors. For example, I might want to know how well a candidate understands commas. If they miss one or two comma issues but catch the majority of them, I’ll decide that their understanding of commas is strong. But if they catch the majority of the comma issues because they asked someone for help, then the results are misleading.
There’s no grey area here for me. The candidate agrees to do the test and do it alone. Asking someone for advice isn’t just not following directions, it’s potentially and intentionally misleading me about their skills.
Testing produces anxiety in a lot of people. We can feel afraid. Desperate. Trapped. Anxiety can not only rob us of our confidence but also lead us to do things we normally wouldn’t.
When we feel that way, it’s easy to convince ourselves that asking for help on a test is justified. Maybe by asking only about an easy sentence, we can think we’re still showing our value because we’ve done the difficult work. Or that a hard sentence is unusual or unfair and that asking for help is an accurate display of how we work in the real world.
But the unstated agreement is that you will complete the test yourself, without help. And when you reach out for help, if you’re caught, you’re destroying the trust you’re trying to build.
Trust is key to any good working relationship, and especially in the author–editor relationship. Our authors need to trust us with their words. Our job is to make the text the best it can be, not to make it ours and not to make it something different. Our authors hand over text trusting that we will do what we agreed to.
Test-taking can be stressful and unnerving. Most of us suffer from impostor syndrome at some point. By taking the test as it was meant to be taken, not only will you be doing the ethical thing, you will defeat this round of impostor syndrome and become a stronger editor.